Next Wednesday, adult survivors of child sex abuse in New York will begin filing a flood of civil lawsuits against institutions and individuals, after decades of having their cases barred from court because the allegations were too old.
Hundreds of plaintiffs are expected to sue organizations large and small, including Catholic dioceses and parishes, the Boy Scouts of America, hospitals and educational institutions. The one year window was enacted under the Child Victims Act that lawmakers passed in January, and intended as a partial remedy to the state’s previous statute of limitations, which required victims to bring civil cases before their 21st birthday and criminal lawsuits before they turned 23. Under the new law, survivors have five more years to file criminal cases and until their 55th birthday to bring civil lawsuits.
Advocates for survivors said the old law was among the most restrictive in the country and failed to recognize how victims process childhood abuse. Studies have found that the average age for adults who disclose their abuse is 52.
“What happened too often was that the victim would get their courage up, go to talk to a lawyer and they would be told, ‘Oh you're too late,’” said Marci Hamilton, director of the advocacy group Child USA and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “You're not just too late, you're too late by twenty years, you’re too late by thirty years.”
Listen to part one of Mara Silvers' story on WNYC:
One Queens resident who we’ll call John, 74, is among the people planning to file a lawsuit next week. (WNYC/Gothamist has agreed to withhold his name to protect his privacy.) John grew up in a Catholic family that attended St. Matthias Church in Ridgewood, where he also went to grade school.
John says his sisters, who became his primary caretakers after his father passed away and his mother became ill, decided to send him to a summer sleepaway camp beginning when he was seven years old. There, John says that a priest named Father Sylvester Marsh sexually abused him during private evening meetings in an office.
“He would call in you and sit you on his lap and ask you how camp was going, then stick his hand down your pants and fondle your genitals,” said John. “I was a kid, you know. I wasn't smart enough to comprehend what he was doing really.”
The abuse allegedly continued during school field trips, when Marsh took John and his classmates on the subway to see museums and events in Manhattan. John never reported the alleged abuse to anyone until this April, when he heard about the change in state law and decided to contact a lawyer.
John and his attorneys have not been able to identify the name of the camp that he says he attended in the 1950s. A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, which oversees the Queens parish, confirmed that Father Marsh was assigned to St. Matthias until 1953, before going on to serve at other parishes in Brooklyn and Queens. The spokeswoman said this was the first known allegation against the priest, who died in 1984, and called John’s account “very disturbing.” St. Matthias did not respond to a request for comment.
Rob Simandle at his workshop in Waverly, New York (Mara Silvers / Gothamist)
Other soon-to-be plaintiffs plan to file negligence suits against other organizations, including the Boy Scouts. Rob Simandle, 51, says he was aggressively spanked and harassed by an assistant scoutmaster in his troop named John Stella in the early 1980s. Simandle eventually told his parents, leading the local Scoutmaster and parent volunteers to kick Stella out of the troop.
“At that point, you know, I thought John [Stella] was just done with Scouts,” said Simandle. “But apparently not.”
The local Scoutmaster at the time, Paul Obernesser, told WNYC/Gothamist that he never reported the incident to the police or the Boy Scouts of America. Stella went on to volunteer in other troops around the state and continued to be accused of sexual misconduct, according to an Ineligible Volunteer File the organization later made for him (the file was one of hundreds introduced as evidence during lawsuits against the Boy Scouts in other states). He was arrested by Suffolk County Police on Long Island in 1989 and pleaded guilty to three counts of sex abuse in the third degree. It was only after his arrest that the Boy Scouts barred Stella from volunteering.
Simandle said he was extremely upset to discover how long Stella remained involved in the organization.
“I don’t want to say I had a relapse, but I just got angry,” said Simandle, who is sober after years of struggling with alcohol use. “I didn’t know what to do. [It was] almost like a panic attack.”
Stella, now a registered sex offender, declined to comment for this story. In a statement, the Boy Scouts apologized to any participant who was harmed during their involvement with the program and said it has implemented new safeguards to protect youth. The organization in April said it is considering filing for bankruptcy.
Since the early aughts, seeking debt protection through Chapter 11 bankruptcy has become more common for organizations facing mass childhood sex abuse cases. Under court supervision, an institution is required to come up with a payment plan for its creditors, restructure its assets and start from a clean slate.
“What bankruptcy allows an institution to do is to put forward what their then known and available assets are and say, this is it,’” said Florina Altshiler, an attorney with Russo & Toner LLP. “‘Whoever it is that we owe money, all of you can come forward and you can get at the pot of money that we have.’”
In other states, temporary look-back windows for child sex abuse claims have led to multi-million dollar settlements with scores of victims. After a one year look-back window in California closed in 2004, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alone paid victims roughly $700 million. During a three year look-back window in Minnesota that ended in 2016, nearly 1,000 plaintiffs filed lawsuits and four Catholic dioceses around the state filed for bankruptcy.
Listen to part two of Mara Silvers' story here:
The Catholic Church, which long opposed New York’s look-back window because of the expected financial blow, has already begun preparing for high settlement costs. The New York Archdiocese proactively sued nearly two dozen of its insurers in July to secure coverage for upcoming sex abuse claims.
Many survivors say that potential settlements are not the sole incentive for filing cases. For some victims, the look back window is a chance to speak publicly about the abuse that caused them shame and distress for decades. For others, it’s an opportunity to force institutions to take responsibility for not protecting children.
“It’s an accountability thing,” said Simandle regarding his case against the Boy Scouts. “And if it takes me going to court and telling them what I’m telling you, then so be it.”